The Wash
DC students attending school prior to Covid-19 outbreak.

District public school’s undergo standards revision to include ethnic studies

The DC State Board of Education is currently in the process of reviewing and revising the social studies standards and curriculum to include more focus on ethnic-minority groups.

It’s been nearly 15 years since the social studies standards were updated for DC schools and members of the community and the State Board of Education believe it is time for new uniform standards. 

“Neglecting to teach about the rich history of minorities in the United States risks alienating students of color,” said Jessica Sutter, the Chairperson of the State Board of Education. She told The Wash that history in public schools is typically taught with a eurocentric perspective and focus.

The current standards were implemented in 2006, at a time when Sutter’s employer, the State Board of Education, didn’t even exist.

Social studies are how students learn about civics, geography, economics and history. 

This revision process provides an opportunity to update the standards to be culturally responsive, anti-racist, to impart important social studies content in elementary schools, strengthen student knowledge of democratic principles and values, and promote civic engagement.

Sutter said that students are more engaged when they see themselves in the subject matter because they can better relate to the content. They are also more attentive in classes that interest them and tend to perform better overall.

Diversity in public schools makes ethnic studies within school standards even more relevant.

Students of color make up an overwhelming majority of DC public school attendance, with 68% being African-American and 18% Latinx. 

Sutter says, “There is no mention of President Barack Obama in our standards,” and that it is past due time to update them for historical and social relevance. 

A 2016 Stanford study found that taking ethnic studies courses improved attendance among high school students at risk of dropping out. 

It also found that students improved in other academic areas, specifically in math and science, after taking ethnic studies classes. 

In July 2020, the State Board established an advisory committee to oversee the revision process. 

The committee includes teachers, educators and other community stakeholders, and they expect to complete the process by the end of 2021. 

Several public and charter schools within the District have already begun piloting and implementing their own ethnic studies program. 

Because of the institutional structures of DC, rarely does the Council discuss and vote on education matters. 

Rather, the State Board of Education and superintendents office were created to address public education matters. 

Ethnic studies have been introduced to school curriculum across the country. In some instances, it produces controversy. 

In late September, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would require ethnic studies for graduating high school students. 

In his veto memo, the governor stated that he is in support of the concept for ethnic studies, but believes the bill in its current form requires revision and further discussion.

The California state legislature had approved ethnic studies changes earlier this year. 

Proponents of the bill are disappointed with the governor’s decision but are ready to continue to push for new requirements next year.

Newsom has indicated with past laws that he is not outright opposed to requiring the curriculum for students. 

In August, Newsom signed a bill requiring ethnic studies for students within the California State University system. 

Nationwide, social studies alterations have prompted controversy in a number of other cases as well.

In 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed legislation that would ban classes promoting “ethnic solidarity.” 

It was passed in reaction to a high school program on Mexican-American studies in Tucson, Arizona that proponents of the law claimed was “indoctrinating students.” 

In 2017, a federal judge found the law violated students’ constitutional rights.  

Many other states, including Indiana, Oregon, Texas, and Connecticut, have also started the process of updating their own standards to include ethnic-minority studies.

Shant Mirzaians

Shant Mirzaians is an investigative journalist interested in government affairs and local activism. He is currently on the West Coast and acting as the Wash's Los Angeles Bureau correspondent.

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